Congress Ready To Abdicate Its Responsibility On Attacks Against ISIS

Congress seems ready to avoid having to vote on expanded attacks against the Islamic State

United States Capitol Building, Washington, D.C. Aerial

With President Obama set to unveil a new plan for dealing with the Islamic State/ISIS on Wednesday, most Members of Congress seem unwilling to go on the record regarding the matter:

While members of Congress are eager to debate the White House’s strategy against the militant group Islamic State, most are loathe to put their names to a vote — especially weeks before a very tight midterm election that will determine which party controls Congress.

After conversations over the last week, “the White House is aware there really is no appetite for a vote,” said one senior congressional aide, who was not authorized to to discuss the deliberations.

Without new authority from Congress, the question becomes how far the administration can take the campaign against the militants also known as ISIS, the acronym for its former name, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Bolder action in Syria would be welcome by Republican defense hawks, and some moderate-leaning Democrats, including Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, the home state of the slain journalist Steven J. Sotloff, who was held captive by the militants.

“We’re going to have to deal with them, not only in Iraq, where we are now, but elsewhere,” Nelson said Monday in the Senate. “As the president has already indicated, this is going to be a long-term kind of operation.”

A protracted battle is far from what many Americans say they want. Even if the president decides to seek congressional approval for a robust military campaign, it is not clear that reluctant lawmakers would give it.

Here’s the dilemma: What if he comes over here and you can’t pass it?” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) “That’d be a disaster. And what if you put so many conditions on it that it makes any military operation ineffective? That’s what I worry about.”

A coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans would likely block such a vote, and those in difficult reelection battles would prefer not to be boxed into a complicated foreign policy issue before the election.

But some are still pushing Obama to seek congressional approval.

“The Constitution is clear: It is the Congress and Congress only that has the constitutional authority to declare war,” said tea party Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who called it “inconsistent” for the president to pursue action without legislative support.

Ted Cruz isn’t the only member of Congress who is arguing that the Legislative Branch ought to weigh in on this matter, Senators Rand Paul and John McCain, who rarely agree on foreign policy issues, are saying the same thing:

It would show “disregard for the Constitution and for the history of our country,” Paul said Monday, if the president didn’t ask Congress for the authority to expand the war against ISIS.

McCain took a different approach but came to the same conclusion as Paul, whom the Arizona senator has clashed with on foreign policy in the past.

“[Obama] should come to Congress,” McCain said, adding that while the president doesn’t need authorization, “it certainly is helpful to have Congress fully engage

Notwithstanding the calls of people like McCain, Cruz, and Paul, though, the Republican leadership doesn’t seem at all interested in taking a vote on this issue, and the Democrats don’t either:

Democratic leaders in the Senate and Republican leaders in the House want to avoid a public vote to authorize force, fearing the unknown political consequences eight weeks before the midterm elections on Nov. 4.

“A lot of people would like to stay on the sideline and say, ‘Just bomb the place and tell us about it later,’ ” said Representative Jack Kingston, Republican of Georgia, who supports having an authorization vote. “It’s an election year. A lot of Democrats don’t know how it would play in their party, and Republicans don’t want to change anything. We like the path we’re on now. We can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well and ask what took him so long.”

Other lawmakers, especially some Democrats, are arguing that as long as the president keeps the operation limited to airstrikes, he does not need to get congressional approval.

“Do I think the president has the right to use airstrikes in the way he’s using it right now?” said Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont, an independent who votes with Democrats. “Yeah, I do. But I am very strongly opposed to the use of ground troops. And before ground troops are used, there most certainly has to be a vote.”

Even some senators close to Mr. Obama are awaiting his rationale. “I want to hear the president’s explanation of what he’s doing and his justification for it,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat.

Other Senate Democrats, like Tim Kaine of Virginia and Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, are pushing for a vote before the president goes further. Various resolutions authorizing force under different circumstances and parameters are being circulated by members of both parties.

This issue has come up several times during the Obama Presidency, just as it has during the Presidencies of those who preceded him in office. When the President announced American involvement in the Libyan civil war in 2011, he made it clear that he would not be seeking Congressional authorization for the action despite calls for him to do so from many quarters on Capitol Hill. In the end, when presented with the opportunity to take action to restrict the President’s authority, or at least put themselves on the record regarding the missing in Libya they completely failed to do so. Last year, in the wake of the alleged use of chemical weapons by the regime in Syria, the President threatened military action against the Assad regime for the crossing of what he had referred to as a “red line.” In the end, thanks largely to public pressure the President agreed that he would submit the matter to Congress. Ultimately, of course, the President did not attack Syria and, indeed, the issue was never submitted to a vote in Congress, in no small part because it was clear at the time that the vote would have failed, thus handing the President a significant embarrassment on the international stage.

The Syria example, however, is something of an anomaly and may have been largely influenced by the fact that the American public overwhelmingly opposed American intervention in the Syrian civil war at the time. For the most part, though, the relationship between the Executive Branch and Congress with regard to war powers and foreign policy since the end of World War II has been one in which Congress has ceded more and more authority to the President, which has led to a long history of what can more or less be called undeclared wars. Even the conflicts where Congress has weighed in — most notably Vietnam, Iraq in 2003, and Afghanistan — it has done so via an authorization that was so entirely open ended that it essentially allowed the President to do whatever he wanted, including expanding the conflict far beyond what Congress may have originally intended it to be. Then when it has gotten to the point where the public is speaking out against the war, Congress finds itself with the Hobson’s Choice of either allowing the President to continue acting with impunity, or cutting off funding and being accused of not taking care of the troops. At that point, obviously, it’s too late for Congress to do much of anything.

Matthew Yglesias diagnosed the problem quite well three years ago in advance of the intervention in Libya:

The one observation I would make about this, is that while the trend toward undeclared military incursions is often described as a kind of presidential “power grab” it’s much more accurately described as a congressional abdication of responsibility. Even if you completely leave the declaration of war business aside, congress’ control over the purse strings still gives a determined congressional majority ample latitude to restrain presidential foreign policy. The main reason congress tends, in practice, not to use this authority is that congress rarely wants to. Congressional Democrats didn’t block the “surge” in Iraq, congressional Republicans didn’t block the air war in Kosovo, etc. And for congress, it’s quite convenient to be able to duck these issues. Handling Libya this way means that those members of congress whowant to go on cable and complain about the president’s conduct are free to do so, but those who don’t want to talk about Libya can say nothing or stay vague. Nobody’s forced to take a vote that may look bad in retrospect, and nobody in congress needs to take responsibility for the success or failure of the mission. If things work out well in Libya, John McCain will say he presciently urged the White House to act. If things work out poorly in Libya, McCain will say he consistently criticized the White House’s fecklessness. Nobody needs to face a binary “I endorse what Obama’s doing / I oppose what Obama’s doing” choice.

We can see that abdication taking place today. Outside of people like Rand Paul, Republicans don’t want to take a stand on the future of military action against the Islamic State because to do so would mean that they would have equal culpability for its consequences just as the people who voted for the Iraq War in 2002 and 2003 found that the public held them as responsible as the President for the course of that war. Democrats are reluctant to put the matter up for a vote both because they too don’t want to go on the record, and because they don’t want to take the risk of a resolution failing to pass Congress, which would be a significant political embarrassment for the President. Added into all of these political calculations is the fact that we are seven weeks away from midterm elections and both parties would rather have this as a political cudgel than take a stand as the Constitution requires them to do. What that means, of course, is that the President will act without Congressional authorization and, when the conflict inevitably expands beyond the limited scope that we are seeing right now, Congress will once again find itself with no choice but to continue to let whomever happens to be President at the time to continue acting without any real check or oversight. It’s a mistake they keep making over and over again.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, National Security, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. gVOR08 says:

    Congress Ready To Abdicate Its Responsibility On _____.

    In other news, water is wet.

  2. KM says:

    Dear Congress:

    @^$#& or get off the pot. This got old ages ago.

    No Love,
    America

  3. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    I’m shocked, SHOCKED!

    What’s really infuriating is that the main ones speaking up about it are loons like Cruz, while everyone else takes the coward’s way out. No wonder guys like him retain popularity–they seem (however falsely) to stand for something besides the next f-ing election.

    God I want the Tom Clancy scenario to play out sometimes.

  4. C. Clavin says:

    The do-nothing Congress is poised to………do nothing.
    And after Cheney went to visit them and give them a pep-talk.
    Cowards.

  5. al-Ameda says:

    Notwithstanding the calls of people like McCain, Cruz, and Paul, though, the Republican leadership doesn’t seem at all interested in taking a vote on this issue, and the Democrats don’t either:

    Republicans want Obama to consult with Congress for the purpose of formalizing their disapproval of his proposal.

    In fact, Darrelll Issa is probably the only Republican who wants Obama to circumvent Congress and take unilateral action because he wants something new to investigate.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    Can we all please remember this when the Republicans next start to whine about Mr. Obama acting unilaterally?

    Congress has abdicated. They are refusing to do the job they are paid to do. They have created a power vacuum into which executive power will inevitably flow.

  7. Scott says:

    Regardless of the wisdom of expanding the operation against ISIS, I think it would be politically smart of the President to insist on a Congressional debate and a vote. It puts people on the record to be held accountable later such as when they are running for office. It is time to insist that Congress do its duty.

  8. ernieyeball says:

    September 1, 1970, 44 years ago this week, the McGovern–Hatfield amendment failed by a 55–39 margin.
    Minutes before the voting began, McGovern appealed for support with the strongest and most emotional language he had ever used regarding the war:

    Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land—young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes.

    There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.

    So before we vote, let us ponder the admonition of Edmund Burke, the great parliamentarian of an earlier day: “A conscientious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood.”

    According to historian Robert Mann, McGovern’s brief, passionate speech shocked his Senate colleagues. As McGovern took his seat, most senators sat in stunned silence. “You could have heard a pin drop,” recalled John Holum, McGovern’s principal staff advisor on Vietnam. As the Senate prepared to begin voting on the amendment, one senator approached McGovern and indignantly told him that he had been personally offended by the speech. McGovern replied, “That’s what I meant to do.”

  9. Moosebreath says:

    @michael reynolds:

    “Can we all please remember this when the Republicans next start to whine about Mr. Obama acting unilaterally?”

    Exactly. The most significant line in the post was the Kinsley type of gaffe (one where you accidentally tell the truth) by Jack Kingston (R-GA), “Republicans don’t want to change anything. We like the path we’re on now. We can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well and ask what took him so long.”

  10. JWH says:

    If I were advising President Obama, I would tell him to proceed with whatever plan he feels is right, then give Congress a courtesy notice at whatever point is mandated by the War Powers Resolution. Aside from that, I’d advise him that if Congress wants to oppose his actions, then they can haul their suited asses into the Capitol and vote on it.

  11. Pinky says:

    @Moosebreath: It isn’t like Kingston slipped up. He’s calling for a vote, and calling out those who aren’t. Also, there was no reason for you to clip that first sentence except for partisanship. “A lot of Democrats don’t know how it would play in their party, and Republicans…”.

  12. Anonne says:

    Debate? The problem is that they can’t get on tv and denounce Obama if they end up endorsing what he’s proposing. This way they get to have their cake and eat it too, because Obama can never be right.

  13. Tyrell says:

    Vice President “send ’em to h_ _ _ ” Biden needs to give Congress a talk. That’s who we want to hear. You go, Joe! None of that “manage, contain, control” stuff. According to Democrats, Republicans, Sec. Hagel, and General Dempsey ISIS must be destroyed.

  14. DC Loser says:

    Can someone tell me why we’re even paying to have a Congress that does nothing?

  15. Another Mike says:

    I think President Obama needs to ask Congress to give him authority to attack ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and anyplace else, assuming that is what he wants to do. Congress needs to do its duty and vote on this. I do not think voters are going to hold a yes vote against anyone in the election. A no vote might be a different story. Americans understand that if any group needs to de decimated, it is ISIS. Eliminate ISIS now while it can be done without shedding American blood.

    I do not like President Obama, never have, and probably never will, but he is our president, and if he is ready to rid us of the menace, I will stand with him. ISIS is not a problem we want to leave to our children and grandchildren to deal with.

  16. michael reynolds says:

    I am still far from convinced that we should do anything with ISIL but contain it by strengthening regional forces backed (if necessary) by US air power and Special Forces.

    I do not understand how a US-led effort not just to contain ISIL but roll it back is in our interests. I far prefer terrorists who are trying to hold territory (ie: targets) rather than ones that are stateless and diffuse.

    I’m open to persuasion, but thus far all I’m seeing is panic and overreaction.

  17. Scott says:

    @michael reynolds: I would like to see some of the regional Arab forces take charge (i.e., the Saudis and other Gulf States). Assuming, of course, they are actually our allies.

  18. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Congress is full of cowards…. Say it ain’t so!!!!

  19. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @ernieyeball: Amen, just Amen. And he knew what he was talking about.

  20. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Another Mike: I seem to recall the same arguments being put forth about 11 years ago….

  21. michael reynolds says:

    @Scott:
    We keep selling arms and training into places like the KSA and Jordan. One wonders why they have all those shiny new jets if not for times like this.

  22. Moosebreath says:

    @Pinky:

    “Also, there was no reason for you to clip that first sentence except for partisanship. “A lot of Democrats don’t know how it would play in their party, and Republicans…”.”

    No, it’s that it was irrelevant to my point. Not in contradiction of it, not in support of it, just irrelevant.

  23. MBunge says:

    “Do I think the president has the right to use airstrikes in the way he’s using it right now?” said Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont, an independent who votes with Democrats. “Yeah, I do.

    The next time anyone on the Left starts bitching about Obama and war-making, remember the above quote. Bernie frickin’ Sanders thinks the President can deal death from above all he likes, so long as he doesn’t put boots on the ground. THAT’S the political world Obama has to deal with. If he can’t get pushback from Bernie Sanders, how is he supposed to justify NOT bombing them all to hell?

    Mike

  24. ernieyeball says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:.. he knew what he was talking about.

    Well, most of the time.

    “I am 1,000 percent for Tom Eagleton and I have no intention of dropping him from the ticket.”

  25. anjin-san says:

    @ ernieyeball

    These clowns could not shine McGovern’s shoes.

  26. michael reynolds says:

    @MBunge:

    Well said.

  27. ernieyeball says:

    Since I turned 21 in January of 1969 the McGovern-Nixon contest in 1972 was the first Presidential election I could vote in. For me it was a no brainer.
    Even before the “third rate burglary” at the Watergate Nixon had lost all credibility with me by continuing the Vietnam War in pursuit of “peace with honor”. What a load of crap!
    I got to see Sen. McGovern at a campaign stop at the Sleepytown Airport with a group of friends.
    None of us thought George had a chance but we could not vote for Tricky Dick in good conscience.
    We were the only county in the State of Illinois (Jackson) to go for McGovern.
    http://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/state.php?year=1972&fips=17&f=0&off=0&elect=0

  28. michael reynolds says:

    I think it’s the wrong thing to do, but if we’re doing it, let’s really do it. No half-assed Bush-war. When you strike at a wanna-be Caliph you must kill him.

  29. sam says:

    Ah, maybe the president is playing rope-a-dope with Congressional Republicans (roughly akin to the Celtics vs. the Happy Valley Pee-Wee Pickup Basketball team).

    1. Calls all the Congressional biggies to the White House to “consult” — something the GOPers have been pissing and moaning about the lack of for since forever.

    2. Lays out his plan.

    3. Goes on TV and says “I’ve consulted with Congress, and although I don’t think I need congressional approval, nevertheless, in a situation of such gravity, I will defer to the will of the Congress. I’m asking for a vote on my plan.”

    4. Heard from the Republican cloakroom: “Jesus Christ, that Kenyan motherfυcker has maneuvered us into a goddamn corner. If we don’t vote to support him, we’re
    fυcked. If we do vote to support him, our magnificent Benghazi-feckless leader-Pussy-in-Chief campaign won’t mean shit. And with the midterms coming up. Goddamit.”

  30. dmhlt says:

    Congress Critters always love having it both ways …

    Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA):

    “We like the path we’re on now. We can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well and ask what took him so long.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/09/us/as-obama-makes-case-congress-is-divided-on-campaign-against-militants.html?_r=3

  31. C. Clavin says:

    @michael reynolds:
    I agree with that…I prefer we don’t…but if we do…go big or stay home.

  32. al-Ameda says:

    @Scott:

    It puts people on the record to be held accountable later such as when they are running for office. It is time to insist that Congress do its duty.

    Couldn’t agree more – a debate, a discussion, a vote, put it all on the record.

  33. Pinky says:

    @Moosebreath: Someone cites Democrats and Republicans as misbehaving, and you say that it proves that Republicans are misbehaving. When I call you out on it, you say that “Democrats are misbehaving” wasn’t your point, so there was no need to mention it. I guess you’re right that your method of argumentation wasn’t partisan. The point of your argument was.

  34. Moosebreath says:

    @Pinky:

    “Someone cites Democrats and Republicans as misbehaving”

    In worlds where “A lot of Democrats don’t know how it would play in their party” is equivalent misbehavior to Republicans “can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well and ask what took him so long” you would have a point. In this world, not so much.

  35. Pinky says:

    @Moosebreath: What’s the real world difference between Democrats waiting to spin and Republicans waiting to spin?

  36. Moosebreath says:

    @Pinky:

    What’s the real world difference between Democrats waiting to spin unsure whether or not to support attacking ISIS until they hear from their constituents and Republicans waiting to spin admitting they will spin it to attack the President regardless of success or failure?

    FTFY.

  37. Pinky says:

    @Moosebreath: Actually, what we’re talking about here is an accusation by a Republican who’s trying to prod his fellow Republicans into a vote. But if you want to use what he said as proof that Republicans are dishonest and Democrats are reasonably cautious, well, have fun with it. But no, that’s not even right. Do you really think that Democrats aren’t thinking about how they’re positioned on this? Psychic Jack Kingston didn’t say that Democrats are looking at their constituents’ opinions; he said that they’re looking at how it plays in their party.

  38. Moosebreath says:

    @Pinky:

    “But if you want to use what he said as proof that Republicans are dishonest and Democrats are reasonably cautious, well, have fun with it.”

    Not quite what I said. If you were saying the Democrats are being the sort of cowards who won’t take a stand until they know how it will play, I’d agree with you. I just think that’s orders of magnitude less blameworthy than making sure the Republicans are able to blame the President, regardless of what happens.

  39. Pinky says:

    @Moosebreath:

    “It’s an election year. A lot of Democrats don’t know how it would play in their party, and Republicans don’t want to change anything. We like the path we’re on now. We can denounce it if it goes bad, and praise it if it goes well and ask what took him so long.”

    I don’t know why you’re assuming that “we” means Republicans only. Every politician in the country will be tempted to try to take credit, avoid blame, and make himself sound like a leader in retrospect.

  40. Moosebreath says:

    @Pinky:

    “I don’t know why you’re assuming that “we” means Republicans only.”

    Two reasons:

    1. Because it reads like he is saying the Republicans (and not the Democrats) like the path they are on now. The first sentence strongly implies the Democrats don’t like the path they are on and are waiting to see how it plays among their constituents.

    2. If it goes well, the Democrats will not be asking Obama what took him so long.

  41. Pinky says:

    @Moosebreath:

    If it goes well, the Democrats will not be asking Obama what took him so long.

    Sure they will. I can think of one Democrat in particular, although she isn’t in Congress, who is desperately trying to portray herself as the hawk of Obama’s first term.

  42. Moosebreath says:

    @Pinky:

    “I can think of one Democrat in particular, although she isn’t in Congress, who is desperately trying to portray herself as the hawk of Obama’s first term.”

    If she makes a major selling point of why it took the President so long to intervene, it makes it more likely that the forthcoming Presidential primary will be much more serious and less of a coronation. Which is not to say she won’t, as she may feel she needs to do so to be taken more seriously in the general election.